The Soul of Guitar Tone

The Soul of Guitar Tone

Written by Jay Jay French

As a guitar player for the last 55 years, hundreds of guitars have passed through my hands and I currently own about 60.

When I was younger, I had no idea what I was actually looking for besides a brand that my heroes at the time played.

I thought that they all were supposed to sound the same.

And for me, they did…kind of.

Each guitar company that has made a guitar that I’ve owned has at least one model that best exemplifies the company’s vision. In the case of the two most famous companies, Gibson and Fender, they have several models that, over the years, have played an important role of creating the sound of most of the music that most of us hold dear.

It is for this reason alone that I didn’t care for the recent (2019) Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit, Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock n Roll. (The exhibit is now at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.)

There was no context, just a lot of guitar porn.

The exhibit should have had a room, as you walked in, that had three huge photos: A Fender Stratocaster, a Fender Telecaster and a Gibson Les Paul. Next to each of them should have been a list of some of the most famous players and songs that these three guitars were featured on. Then the context of the collection would have made much more sense.

Electrifying: the 1964 Fender Stratocaster used by Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, 1965. From the Met’s Play It Loud exhibit.

Yes, there are sub-groups of guitars, but what’s the point of any of this without understanding why things sound the way they do!

Guitar players are, by and large, a rather conservative lot.

Most of us have grown up with a handful of guitar models, the sound and looks of which are imprinted deeply into our DNA: the Fender Stratocaster, Fender Telecaster, Gibson Les Paul, Gibson SG, Gibson ES-335, Rickenbacker 360/12 and Gretsch 6120.

Birth of a legend: the first prototype of the Fender Telecaster, 1949. From the Met’s Play It Loud exhibit.

These models can be heard on probably 90 percent of all the recordings that most of you know.

To be sure, there are many more guitar brands and models. I know. I have many of them. In fact, my all-time favorite “go-to” is actually a single cutaway Les Paul Junior, which, when first introduced (1954), was a budget model that sold for $99.00. I have five of them manufactured between 1954 to 1957.

Some of Jay Jay’s Les Paul Juniors with a Yamaha THR10 amplifier.

The fact that Gibson and Fender created designs that are all-time sales leaders and created so many classic sounds underscores the point of this article.

To my (our) ears, the sounds we as players know are characterized by the “tone” we listen for when trying to decide what we want to play, and those sounds that we search for are sounds that we have listened to for thousands of hours.

But, I learned over the years that just because a guitar model is the one you want, it may not sound right.

To get even more into the weeds, the way my friends describe it is that the guitar has a soul.

The particular instrument either has it or doesn’t.

Les Paul playing a modified Les Paul in 1954, with Mary Ford.

To complicate matters, not only do different models do different things (certain brands and models have basic sounds that coincide with a certain kind of musical style, like a Telecaster for country or a Les Paul for hard rock) but within the same model, one guitar can sound incredibly tuneful but a guitar made on the same day, with the same wood and the same electronics, can sound lifeless and dull.

Only after playing for years does this become apparent.

Guitars are tools and long-time pros can tell a good one almost instantly.

This is the magic of guitar playing.

The most confounding brand for me is Paul Reed Smith (PRS).

PRS came onto the scene 35 years ago with a kind of hybrid guitar that both Gibson and Fender players could relate to. By “hybrid” I mean combined features of both brands with a design elements of its own.

The quality control (meaning the “fit n finish”) of a basic PRS puts Fender and Gibson to shame and is probably the reason why these two behemoths, after both suffered severe quality and sales declines in the 1970s, have come back strongly.

I have owned several PRS guitars over the last 15 years. This is the problem: the guitar, to me, has no soul and, though PRS has its fans, most of the players I know who have played them and owned them have similar sentiments.

In short, it doesn’t know what it wants to be.

I know that that sounds crazy. Why should it have to?

The answer to that is that every guitar manufacturer wants to create and sell a product that people want. It doesn’t matter if you are Gibson, Fender or a super-boutique company with two employees that builds almost totally by hand. The guitar has to connect with the player’s soul.

The PRS guitars, no matter how I tried, including changing the pickups, can’t sound the way I need to hear a guitar.

This, of course, has never stopped Carlos Santana, one of the world’s greatest players and a huge Paul Reed Smith fan, from making great music with his PRS instruments.

It works for him! Carlos Santana playing a Paul Reed Smith guitar. Courtesy of Wikipedia/Eva Rinaldi.

In fact, during the 1990s, PRS guitars were the go-to model for just about every nu-metal band around the world (Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, Sevendust, POD, Staind, Chevelle, Drowning Pool and Saliva, plus Nickelback and Creed, to name a few). PRS finally had found its niche.

But, try as I might, PRS doesn’t get me.

To be fair, I do not play Rickenbacker or Gretsch guitars either but I know what they do, and if I played the kind of music that these guitars are generally used for (Rickenbacker for jangly alternative music – their electric 12-strings are the classic electric 12 sound – and Gretsch for more of a country/rockabilly style) I know where to go.

Tone kings: Jay Jay, John Mayall and guitarist Rocky Athas.

There is no law that says that you must use a certain guitar for a certain style, but it is understood by most players that it’s easier to get the sound they want for a particular genre faster if they use a guitar model that has “been there,” and has defined the sound of a particular musical style.

For all you surf guitar junkies, I don’t want to leave you out. Want to sound like a West Coast surf band, play a Mosrite. That will get you there ASAP!

The point is that each guitar, because it is made mostly by humans (with a little help from a CNC machine), will sound and feel different. And even “standard” parts like pickups and potentiometers can have variations in magnets, wiring or tolerances. Some necks feel like “home” while others don’t. Some wood is lively and resonant and some guitars just feel like dogs.

A great guitar will inspire you.

When it comes to owning a guitar with soul, you either feel it or you don’t.

Pretty in pink: Jay Jay’s custom Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster.

Header image: Eddie Van Halen’s 1975 “Frankenstein” guitar, from the Met’s Play It Loud exhibit.

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